Total Liability

by
November 16, 2016

Ian Bailey is a mountain bike instructor and has sent us this reaction to the recent court ruling about a rider who was injured while on a skills course. The instructor was deemed liable and the rider has been awarded damages for his injuries.

So the unthinkable has happened…

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The solicitor who fell off his bike while being coached has successfully claimed damages worth £3 million on the premise that it was 80% the fault of his instructor that he crashed.

There’s a predictable degree of vitriol being fired at the individual on message boards of the mountain bike press. After all, from the point of view of us bikers we all fall off our bikes, most of us get injured at some point, sometimes seriously, and get up, get to hospital, accept that bad luck or bad technique was to blame and get on with our lives. Unfortunately, this person and the ruling judge saw it differently and a potentially industry changing precedent has been set. While largely agreeing with the anger I have a vested interest in this outcome and so need to explore it further to understand the possible ramifications.

stock scratch image, scratched leg
Most of us accept that injuries are a part of our sport.

 

I’m a professional bike coach and as such make my living by improving the way people ride bikes. I observe, analyse, give feedback, video, tweak technique and use all sorts of tried and tested processes to get the best out of clients. A big part of the job is also encouraging them to push their limits, to gain confidence and expand their mental boundaries, allowing them to realise the potential of their new found skills.

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Another key aspect of my job role is to ensure safety as far as humanly possible, helping make decisions for riders who may not be as aware of potential dangers through their lack of experience. So what I do is choose suitable venues, build up gradually, dynamically risk assess, talk them through features and observe them from all angles, draw lines for them to follow, demonstrate the section myself and then vitally always, ALWAYS put the decision whether to attempt something firmly in their court.

Now I’ve only got as much information on this case as anyone else who has read the articles online but the salient points I picked out were these:

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1) The rider claimed to have years of experience
2) The rider had already attempted the line once and was back for a second attempt
3) The rider claimed they were placed under undue pressure to re-attempt at a faster speed

Now what this clearly says to me is that there is no possible way that the rider was tricked into doing something that they were unaware of but, playing devil’s advocate here, they felt they were under big pressure to re-attempt. I simply can’t fathom personally how a grown adult can claim to have been bullied into doing something like this but I wasn’t there and therefore have to accept that the judge was simply pitting one man’s word against the other. It’s extremely difficult to disprove that a person felt a certain way and so the judge seemingly had to accept the rider’s version of events.

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So what does this mean for me, other coaches and the UK mountain bike coaching industry?

So far, the implications are unknown. Almost certainly insurance premiums may rise but more worryingly for me is the thought that we may have to temper our styles and behaviours to the detriment of the coaching.

stock Chipps first aid, coaching
Our very own Chipps taking part in a mountain bike coach course.

When teaching prospective bike guides and coaches I always talk about the safety to fun ratio. What this means is that whenever running a session the instructor is walking a very subtle and fine line where abilities are pushed for the sake of progress and enjoyment, but safety isn’t excessively compromised. The key word here is ‘excessively’ because at the heart of it there is no possible way of guaranteeing safety 100% and even if we could totally mitigate risk then it would remove the essential fear factor and buzz which for many people is an integral part of why we ride.

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I’ve never finished a session with the client thanking me for making it feel completely safe! I’ve finished hundreds of sessions with clients buzzing with their own sense of achievement after hitting a drop or nailing a section they never deemed possible. I’ve guided them through the process to be successful but once they make the decision to hit a feature there’s very little I can do to stop them. If they subsequently crash and get hurt, all I can really do is be happy in myself that they went in with all the knowledge required so that regardless of anything they can’t blame me.

The thought that there are people out there who seek blame for their own actions fills me with dread but is an unfortunate facet of 21st century society. Increasingly many people seem unable to accept the consequences of their own action and decisions, turning to litigation rather than self-reflection.

I’ve already had to make adjustments. My disclaimer has added more lines regarding self-responsibility and accountability and sadly I’ve also found myself deliberately holding back from advancing riders as far or as fast as they may be capable for the sake of their possible self-preservation. This is the aspect that really saddens me, having to feel mildly suspicious of people who I really enjoy working with on the off chance that they are the blaming type.

stock Chipps first aid, coaching
First aid training at a mountain bike coach course.

I’ve had people get hurt during my sessions, bones have been broken, helmets cracked and numerous crashes had. The most gratifying thing for me is that without fail, every person who has been hurt while out with me has subsequently been back for more coaching once healed or contacted me to thank me for the session and express how much they enjoyed it despite the unplanned early finish. This is testament to the mindset of the vast majority of people out there for whom accidents are simply unfortunate occurrences and blame is irrelevant. There will always be exceptions to this rule and so I, and the other instructors and guides I train will have to remain professional as ever while maybe edging the fun:safety ratio across a few notches.

Let’s not forget that a man has permanently lost the ability to walk. While we may consider his subsequent actions to be pretty abhorrent, let’s get past that and instead of abusing him, put our energies into supporting the instructor who’s life has also been turned upside down as a result of an accident that nobody intended or wanted to happen. We never want to hurt anyone but as long as people seek to be coached on bikes, there will always be riders falling off while purportedly being under the care of others. Three million quid won’t allow that man to ever walk again and anger towards him won’t really help us feel any better about the outcome, I just hope that Pandora’s Box hasn’t been flung open.